Beam: Bridge tolls should have ended

By By Jim Beam / American Press

Those of us who don’t have to pay tolls

to drive on area highways and bridges are lucky. The same isn’t true

for citizens

who live on the West Bank in New Orleans. Motorists there on Nov. 6

got stuck with 20 more years of tolls on the two Crescent

City Connection bridges.

The decision to keep the tolls won by an 18-vote margin out of 308,768 votes cast. The proposition was opposed in Jefferson

and Plaquemines parishes and approved in Orleans.

For many drivers in Jefferson Parish, it’s an almost daily occurrence. They have to pay either $1 in cash or 40 cents if they

purchase a toll tag.

More than 155,000 vehicles cross the two spans each day, according to The Times-Picayune. That makes the bridges the nation’s

fifth-busiest thoroughfare, the newspaper said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal could have saved

those motorists $21 million a year by vetoing the bill setting up that

election. If he

had, the tolls would have expired this December, and the state

would have taken over bridge maintenance, a service it performs

for all other bridges in the state.

Jindal has a warped view when it comes to taxes, tolls and tuition. He opposes taxes but has no problem with the other two,

which in the final analysis are no different than taxes.

The governor signed the toll legislation at the same time he vetoed four bills that would have allowed Calcasieu, Jefferson

and Orleans parishes to conduct a public vote on renewing a 3 percent state car rental taxes for local use.

Most of the Calcasieu tax revenues would have been used to help maintain and operate the Lake Charles Regional Airport, where

most of those taxes are collected.

Voters in all three parishes would have had the final word, just as they did in the New Orleans area. So what’s the difference?

Mike Teachworth, organizer of Stop the Tolls, summed up the bridge situation well in a letter to the Jefferson Parish Council.

“If not reversed, this unfair bridge

tax, over its 20-year duration, will take close to a quarter of a

billion dollars out

of the economy of Jefferson Parish,” Teachworth said. “This after

Jefferson Parish has already paid in $200 million for the

CCC over the last 24 years, and while all other Mississippi River

bridges in our state are fully funded by the state with

no toll tax imposed on them.”

Teachworth said West Bank residents contribute 80 percent of the revenues, but only represented 20 percent of those who decided

the issue on Election Day.

The first of the two bridges opened in 1958 and cost $65 million. Gov. John McKeithen removed the tolls in 1964 as promised,

and they stayed off until 1989. That is when the second span was built at a cost $550 million. The tolls were reimposed by

the Legislature in order to pay for bridge construction.

Opponents of the tolls said only 19 cents of every toll dollar has actually been spent on the bridge. They said the other

money has been used elsewhere.

State Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Harvey, has been fighting the tolls for West Bank residents for many years. He said toll funds

have been squandered and used by the Crescent City Connection Division for projects with little or no link to operation of

the two bridges.

Even supporters of extending the tolls

agree Connick has shed a lot of light on bridge finances and operations.

They have

promised to work with Connick to ensure every dollar goes into

bridge operations. However, those are promises the people of

Jefferson Parish have heard before.

Jim Tucker, a former Speaker of the state House of Representatives and a West Bank resident, said the bridge bonds are paid

off, and the tolls should end.

“Over the next 20 years, are we willing

to write a $400 million-plus blank check to the Department of

Transportation and Development

given that no guaranteed projects for the future were identified

in the legislation?” Tucker asked. “Not me.”

Opponents of extending the tolls say

they will challenge the results of the election. Patrick Hand III, a

West Bank attorney,

said a petition will be filed asking for a recount of all absentee

and early voting ballots. A new vote may also be requested,

he said. Connick said a recount should be mandatory when elections

are this close.

The chances of getting a recount, a re-vote or a court verdict are slim. The courts are always reluctant to overturn election

outcomes or call for new elections.

Those who live on the West Bank were literally “taken to the cleaners.” They need to place the blame for their plight where

it belongs. The legislation setting up the toll vote was approved 39-0 in the state Senate and 85-17 in the House, and it

was signed by Gov. Jindal.

The real fly in this ointment was letting Orleans Parish voters participate in an election which didn’t directly affect most

of the parish’s residents.

The bridge toll experience in the New Orleans area will make it extremely difficult for the state to construct future toll

roads and bridges anywhere else in Louisiana.

• • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com